LITTLE FISH, BIG FISH, AND THE LAUGHING BIRD

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By Benjamin Alvarado

It was a routine to see the old man trudge into the fishing pier shop every Sunday morning holding the plastic tackle box and the rod in one hand and same old magazine tucked into the back pocket of his pants. The hanging doorbells jingled and Mr. Arriaga instantly turned his eyes to the floor expecting his deceased dog like he expected the old man to walk in at seven o’clock every Sunday morning. The old man bought a box of frozen shrimp from the shop along with four twenty-four ounce cans of beer and a bag of roasted peanuts. He walked out into the pier, squinting against the sunlight. A few fishermen nodded hello as the old man habitually counted down the number of light poles on the mile long pier. The fishermen admired the old man and the old man sensed it. He walked along the wooden deck-floor wearing the wide brim hat with the many hooks with which he had caught his big fish like a trophy.

There was a white church a few blocks from the pier next to the lighthouse. The bell tower was detectable from the shop. The bells tolled to summon parishioners to mass.

He was wearing steel rimmed spectacles, a dusty denim overall over a white t-shirt, and sandals. His hazel eyes were sad and teary in their sockets and the skin on his gray face drooped like the clothes over his lean body.

“Any luck?” the old man asked every other fisherman.

“One little fish.”

“One big fish.”

“Almost got one of them laughing birds.”

“Sons of bitches are not biting today!”

“Not on this spot. The low water level isn’t helping. The high tide will come soon.”

“No, I think I’m using the wrong bait. I keep reeling in small croakers. I think I’ll use the little fuckers for bait. Perhaps I can reel in a big fish.”

He set the fishing accessories, the beer, and the peanuts down on light pole sixteen underneath the red canopy. On Sunday mornings nobody cast from pole sixteen because it was the old man’s spot and the undeclared Sunday-morning ritual was that every Sunday-morning fisherman always cast from the same spot. He walked back to his vehicle to get the foldable chair and the bucket. When he got back the seagulls were biting into the box of frozen shrimp. He swatted them away with the magazine. He opened the tackle box and prepared to cast. The water wasn’t a dark blue or opaque as other Sundays; it was a light green and translucent. He cast using a one-ounce weight toward the Queen Isabella Causeway and used the rail mount rod holder. He waited. The plastic bag was pasted to the cans of beer from the moisture. He grabbed one.

“C’mon, big fish,” he said. “Add another hook to the old hat.”

Two tourists gawked out into the Laguna Madre Bay from the lighthouse. One of them fed the seagulls.

“Don’t feed the laughing birds,” he muttered. “C’mon down to the pier and feed the little fish.”

The old man detested the birds, their raucous laugh, and their greed. The laughing bird was excessively wealthy within the confines of its ocean and without fulfillment it fed from all indigent hands. They ambushed on the rails of the causeway and pier for gold crumbs and the vulnerability of frail fish in the clear waters.

The high tide neared and the glare of the rising waters silhouette on the ceiling of the canopy. The northeast breeze delivered a fragrance of roses. It reminded him of Maui at sunrise as he stood on the Kihei beach shore admiring the green mountains amid the fog that dissipate as the sunlight pierced the stagnate clouds. It was heaven and he felt like God.

There was no slack on the line; it was as tight as a guitar string. He waited for hours for a slight tug and drank his beers.

To his right a Negro man in a straw hat reeled in a mojarra. It flapped on the wooden floor, fins erect, until it ceased. Its tormented eyes gazed at the old man, its mouth gasping, its gills opened and closed. It was gutted, cut into pieces, and fed to the seagulls. They mobbed over the scattered carcass and pecked at the pieces until all that remained were the blood spots. Their laughter was burlesque and cruel.

Two children lifted their arms with pieces of apple on the palm of their hands. The seagulls hovered cowardly above them. They could see the temptation, their independence, but always mindful of the children’s danger. The children lined the pieces of apple over the rail of the pier and the seagulls ate. Their parents lay asleep in the tents near the end of the pier by the set of binocular viewers that pointed toward the ocean. The sun had risen to a forty-five degree angle over the surface of the earth. More of the laughing bird flew in from the horizon.

“My father reeled in a big fish, mister,” the boy in the red shirt said. “You should see it. It is this big.” He spread his arms out. “And when it was on the braid stringer with the other fish, it ate the littlest fish! And when we pulled the stringer up it wouldn’t stop nibbling at the little fish! Can you believe that? Right?”

The girl in the white blouse nodded her head. “Yes,” said the girl, “it’s true. There were tiny pieces of fish flesh floating in the water. Do all big fish eat the little fish?”

“Only greedy fish that cheat to get to the top,” said the old man.

“What do you mean?” the boy asked.

“One day you will understand.”

“We want you to have the fish,” said the girl. “It has been forgiven.”

“The fish belongs to your father. It is his trophy. It takes skill, strength, and patience to reel in a big fish.”

“Please take the fish. It is our gift,” said the boy.

“ I have a perfect and righteous judgment. ”

He cut the big fish and put the pieces in a plastic bag. More people entered the pier. Most of the spots were occupied before noon. He reeled in his line and added a bobber. Then he put a piece of the big fish on the hook and cast it toward a flock of seagulls. A seagull caught the hook in mid air and swallowed it. He started pumping and lifting the rod vertically while simultaneously reeling. Several children gathered behind him thinking that he was flying a mad kite. The bird bled from the bill, screamed, flapped, and swooped. It plunged onto the pier head first, landing in a thump and breaking its neck. A group of people formed a circle around the dead bird; its white feathers freckled with blood and one wing erect manifesting permanent defeat in the light breeze. He unhooked the bird and put the hook on the front of his hat alongside one feather. It was his greatest trophy and first feather in his cap.

The church bells tolled at noon. He took the bird by the wing in one hand and the portions of fish in the other.  A school of little fish waited in the clear surface of the water. He raised his arms up in a V by the rail and released them. He leaned forward over the rail and laughed at how the little fish dined. The bird and the slices of fish vanished in the depth. He gathered up his fishing gear. There would be other Sundays. The breeze reeked of roses.

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